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Commentary By Manhattan Institute

2022 Alexander Hamilton Awards: Asness and Gigot

The following is a transcript of remarks delivered by Cliff Asness and Paul Gigot at the 2022 Hamilton Award Dinner.

Cliff Asness: 

Good evening, everyone. I am deeply honored to introduce our first award winner of the evening, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor, for 20 years, Paul Gigot. Let me first give you the very short version. Where the hell would we be without The Wall Street Journal editorial page? Where the hell would The Wall Street Journal editorial page be without Paul Gigot? And, let me answer my question. We'd be totally screwed, full stop. 

Now, you get the long version. To start, I am actually quite thrilled that I did not have to submit these remarks to Paul and his team. Let me tell you how that would've gone. I would've sent a draft to what I thought was the submissions email. I gave a hint there. I then would've waited about a week,  not heard. Finally, I'd email Paul, a little snippy, maybe mentioning that he's published nine of my op-eds over 12 years, and don't I merit a response? Paul would respond, "Cliff, you sent it to the wrong email again. We'll run it next week." I would then be embarrassed and quite excited, which is an emotional combination I have personally mastered. 

I'm not quite done. Finally, you’d get from Paul's team, I assume, it could be Paul—it’s very sphinx-like there, you don’t exactly know—I would get a much shorter version of what I wrote. I don't think Paul will be shocked to hear that I would hate this much shorter version very, very much. They'd also give you about an hour to edit it, and either approve or it's not going to run. And they would accept some suggestions. They’re okay with that, but at the end of the hour—and I'm not just sucking up here, well, I am sucking up , but it’s true—I would discover that their version was just better than mine. They actually know what they're doing. I'm damn lucky there's a place for views like mine, and that Paul and his team are so good at what they do they can fool the world into thinking I can write. 

As you may have guessed, this is not a hypothetical example. Unfortunately for you, Paul has not been able to edit this. This is the unedited version. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is a singular outpost among media giants, and it's singular in a very important way. It is not deranged. 

Now, hear me out. It's a bit better than “not deranged.” I would use the words “brilliant,” “honest,” even “courageous,” but “not deranged” is actually a pretty high bar these days, considering I can think of one example that crosses it. It's wonderful to be talking about Paul at the Manhattan Institute. The Journal has been a wonderful outlet for MI scholars over time, people like Jason Riley, Heather Mac Donald, Rafael Mangual, Charles Lehman. There are other examples, but I had to cut it. If I left you out, yell at Paul. He should have published more of your work. 

It's not an accident that MI scholars find The Wall Street Journal a natural home. We're at a time when so many of the nation's biggest newspapers have gone off the deep end. They are driven by youthful staff suffering the dual diseases of wokeness and lack of a good Econ 101 teacher. 

Thankfully, and my friend Paul Singer listed some of these, too, like the Manhattan Institute, The Wall Street Journal can be trusted to stand up for things like the efficacy and, yes, fairness of free markets, the importance of public safety, rational, fiscal, and monetary policy, sane energy policy, and, of course, much more. We—and I mean the Manhattan Institute, The Wall Street Journal, and, I hope, and expect, and believe, most of this room—believe these things because they bring prosperity to the many and because they're respectful of the rights of the few, and we know that those two things don't go together by accident. 

I was pausing for applause there so that worked. Let me actually talk about Paul a bit, though all the wonderful things about The Wall Street Journal are implicitly about Paul. Paul actually had a life and a rather accomplished one before his current gig. He grew up in Wisconsin. Actually, that's not particularly accomplished. It's nice. Went to college at Dartmouth (it’s picking up). He joined the Journal as a reporter in 1980. I got bar mitzvahed in 1980, and I've been around a while. 

In that decade, he went on to cover Asia, winning an Overseas Press Club Award in the process of writing on the Philippines, and to serve as a White House fellow under Ronald Reagan. He then started writing his famous Potomac Watch column, giving an insider's look at D.C., and his face became a familiar sight on television in the 1990s, particularly, I think, on The Jim Lehrer Show. So, if you have a vague kind of memory of seeing Paul, that may be where it's from. 

In other words, Paul did quite a few things that a lot of journalists don't do today. He spent time actually covering the world and learning things about it. And then only, with that kind of base of knowledge and skills, did he turn to commentary and opinion. This is novel stuff, I know, and his method may be just a tad superior to journalists who focus mostly on growing Twitter followers and occasionally doxxing their enemies. 

Of course, Paul has been fantastically successful at all of this, and I will pick one random example. In 2000, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a Potomac Watch. Now, Paul, you'll have to correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe in your line of work that's a big deal. I could be ...  

Paul Gigot: 

Not as good as this. 

Cliff Asness: 

... that's right. Today, despite his duties overseeing the writing of others, you can still hear him hosting a podcast version of Potomac Watch, and you can still see him on The Journal Editorial Report, an hour-long show weekly on Fox News. Paul Gigot is simply a giant astride the world of journalism and a warrior for things that the people in this room believe in. So, it is yet again, my tremendous honor to present Paul Gigot with the Manhattan Institute's 2022 Alexander Hamilton Award. Congratulations, Paul. 

Paul Gigot: 

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you, Cliff. I think "not demented" is the nicest thing anybody's ever said about me. I don't know how many of you read Cliff's Twitter feed, but I recommend it because I learn more about finance from his Twitter feed than I do from most of the financial press. 

It's great to see so many friends here, especially after the long COVID winter, and as a journalist, I have to say it's especially good to see so many sources. You know who you are, and I will not rat you out. So this isn't always the reception I receive, not universal. At some event a few years back, a young man came up to me. He was at roughly college age and said, "Wow! It's great to meet you. I'm a big fan, read your stuff, see you on TV," and so on. 

And so I was feeling pretty good about myself. We chatted for a couple of minutes and in the end, he said, "Well, I got to go, but this is a real thrill. Now I can tell everyone that I have finally met Chris Matthews." That's a true story, and I'd say it's mildly humiliating. 

I want to thank Paul Singer, Reihan Salam, and MI for this. I appreciate it very much. The MI and the Journal have had a long and happy collaboration, as Cliff said. We both published the great Jason Riley, as well as so many other scholars. What we find, I think, valuable about their contributions is that they're not afraid. First of all, they know their stuff. Second, they are not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom, and that's what I want to talk a little bit about tonight. 

I was thinking about what to say here, and Alexander Hamilton and all that, and it occurred to me that Alexander Hamilton, among many other things, was a newspaper man. He founded the New York Post. It's only my second favorite newspaper. He was also a pamphleteer. I guess what you'd call today an opinion writer. He was engaged in the debates of his time and wasn't cowed by fashionable opinion. 

I wonder what he'd think about our era, which too often resembles an age of conformity. Never in history have there been more outlets, more ways for people to tell the world what they think; and never in history have so many people wanted to all think alike--and, not only that, insist that you think like they think. And if you refuse, you can be silenced or ostracized or fired. It's happened. 

Now, this is destructive for democracy, obviously, for innovation, and science, and for medicine, competition, and business, but I think it's especially destructive for journalism. If any institution has a stake in fighting conformity, you'd think it would be the press. Conformity is what authoritarians try to impose on the press. 

Now, American journalists, when I was coming of age, when I was growing up in the business, as Cliff said, many, many centuries ago, American journalists used to fight back against censorship. Today, many say freedom of speech is simply too free. They support censorship on tech platforms. They denounce Elon Musk because he wants to buy Twitter, actually, to promote free speech. Go figure. They even support what the Biden administration is calling its new “Disinformation Governance Board.” All I can say is I guess they don't read George Orwell at the White House. 

Sometimes I think I've fallen asleep like a reverse Rip Van Winkle and awakened in Singapore in the 1980s. That's when Melanie Kirkpatrick and I, we were in Asia for the Journal. Melanie's here. We were hauled into court because Melanie wrote an editorial criticizing the arrest of the only two opposition members of Parliament. Now, today, that same censoring impulse, I hate to say it, is here in the United States, and it's in the press corps. 

Now, tell you a story. No doubt all of you recall the mood after George Floyd's murder, which really was a terrible case of police abuse and was properly punished, but the dominant media opinion soon turned, after that terrible day, into an attack on policing in general and on the anti-crime policies that did so much for so long in this city and elsewhere to make the streets safer and life safer and to reduce crime. 

Now, naturally, this did not sit well with Heather Mac Donald, as all of you know. She, I think it's safe to say, she's fearless, and she sent us an article not too long after George Floyd's murder arguing that when you, of course, attack law enforcement, particularly all of law enforcement, in general vague terms, police tend to retreat from their duties. Crime makes a comeback. Well, we decided we'll publish Heather's piece, and the reaction was furious. She was denounced far and wide, and we were asked to apologize. 

Some reporters used that—Heather's piece—as exhibit A in a case for why The Wall Street Journal editorial page should be canceled. They didn't succeed, I'm happy to say, but, two years later, what have we learned? We learned Heather was right. The surge in murder, the surge in crime has happened almost precisely as she predicted it would. 

Now, my point here isn't to claim vindication, though, Heather deserves it. The point is that conformity is destructive because it silences voices and ideas that need to be heard in a democracy. If more people had listened to Heather at the time, we would've avoided the last two years and perhaps avoided the surge in crime and the mistakes of the past. 

For the press, a stifling consensus is also the enemy of credibility. My mentor at the journal, Bob Bartley, liked to tell the story about the great Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889, which killed 2,200 people. That was the era of telegraphic reports, and legend has it that a reporter on the scene wired back a story with a lede, "God looked out on Johnstown today and wept," to which his editor wired back, "Forget flood, interview God." 

Now, the lesson of that story, what Bob wanted us to learn, is that journalists have to be open to what they see for themselves. Be alert for news. Don't merely accept what everyone tells you is true. Look for yourself. See the world plain and tell your audience about it even if it might be unpopular. By the way, this is as true for those of us who have the luxury of admitting we have opinions as it is for reporters who like to pretend that they do not have opinions. I'm convinced that conformity is one reason for the decline of public trust in the press. 

Some of you may have read that President Biden, speaking at the White House Correspondents Dinner this past weekend, said that he was delighted to address a group that had a lower approval rating than he has. Good line, but it's actually worse than that. The press has a lower approval rating even than Congress. It's down to friends and family, I'm afraid, and we've earned it, we've earned it. 

Now, the only way to regain public trust is to return to doing our proper job. Stop sitting on stories like Hunter Biden's laptop, which, by the way, I have to praise the New York Post for this. I mean, they really did a fabulous job. For my sins, I was on the Pulitzer Prize board for nine years, and I would've voted for the Post for that. The way to regain public trust is to start telling the truth without worrying whether the blue check marks on Twitter approve. 

Now, I know I'm not here today because of who I am; but I'm here because I represent the Journal, an institution that has supported the principles on our editorial page for many decades, and I'm really grateful and proud that our proprietors have always supported us when we get into a little trouble, create some controversy, whether that be with the White House, a foreign government, or other members of the press. 

Institutions like the Manhattan Institute and the Journal are vital because they sustain and pass down principles and standards to the next generation. And at the Journal, as Cliff suggested, that tradition includes free markets and free people, and I dare say we need that more than ever today when those ideas are out of fashion and under attack not just by the left but also by many on the right. 

American politics is in many ways an eternal battle between equality and freedom, twin poles of Western thought. Both have legitimate claims and sometimes we need to tilt toward equality, as we did during the era of Jim Crow to break Jim Crow. At the Journal, we lean toward freedom first, and we do so because we think that those who strive to protect freedom do better by equality than those who emphasize equality do by freedom. 

Now, the last decade and a half haven't been terrific, as we all know, for those of us who believe in economic freedom. The financial crisis, the great recession soured millions of people on capitalism. Socialism made a comeback. The year of big government returned, but if you'll allow me to hazard a prediction, I sense that a turn is coming. The policies of those who believe in the primacy of the state simply haven't worked. The problems that an earlier generation worked so hard to defeat are back—inflation, shortages, crime, social division, dictators on the march. The coercion that marked the pandemic has reminded Americans about the excesses and failures of government. 

Now, as Cliff suggested, I'm old enough to be an optimist because I've seen this before. As I began my professional life in the late 1970s, the United States was facing problems that are uncannily similar to the ones we face today, but thanks to the work and the ideas of the Manhattan Institute, to Bob Bartley and the Journal, and many others, America found solutions, and we can do it again. We will do it again. If I can adopt, adapt, rather, a phrase that Barack Obama once used in a different context, "The 1980s called. They want their policies back." 

I once lamented to former secretary of state George Schultz that all the bad ideas we thought we had defeated in the 1980s seemed to have returned. George said, basically, "Cheer up, kid," and he reminded me that in human affairs there are no permanent victories and there are no permanent defeats. Each of us, each generation, has to fight to preserve and regain the freedom in the era in which we live, and that's the great privilege that the owners and readers of the Journal and all of you here allow me and my colleagues every day. And as for our friends on the left who want us to go away, sorry to disappoint. We aren't going anywhere. Thank you very much. 

Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Please email for any corrections.